SBA loan saves Pasco Co. farm, but owners nearly go bankrupt in the meantime

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – With billions in fraudulent pandemic relief loans distributed across the state and nation, owners of a Pasco County micro-farm thought their legitimate demand for only $ 18,000 would go through the process.

But as Cannapalooza Farms owners Marlon Santiago and Rudy Fiordilino waited for the loan, they became particularly upset after seeing 8 On Your Side reports of dozens of bogus farm loans taken out on behalf of oblivious Tampa area residents. Bay who were victims of widespread identity theft. .

William Dreyer had no idea he was named the owner of Dreyer Farms, allegedly planted in his South Tampa yard.

“I’ve lived here for almost 50 years and have never picked up a hoe,” Dreyer said when contacted by 8 On Your Side in January.

Santiago and Fiordilino were optimistic about their year-old Cannapalooza hemp farm until the pandemic broke the country’s shipping and distribution chain and cut them off from their customers.

They said they believed the SBA loan would help them stay afloat, but in early May, farmers were frustrated with the process.

“I’ve been trying to do this for six months,” Santiago said at the time. “We’re at the end of our rope here.”

Fiordilino didn’t hesitate when asked if Cannapalooza was about to shut down.

“Yes,” he said. “We were.”

This week, nine months after submitting their application and following several emails sent to the SBA by 8 On Your Side and Cannapalooza, they finally got results.

A sale of 300 plants failed during the wait, but now the loan has been approved and funded, helping the farm to survive and grow.

“It was pure excitement,” Fiordilino said. “We actually said, ‘Wow! They got it right. “

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Yet these small business owners sympathize with others who did not survive the delays.

“Marlon and I put everything in [this farm] but we have other jobs to help us be successful, ”Fiordilino said. “Those small businesses over there? That’s all they do, and they got nothing.

“If you hadn’t contacted us, I think we would still be waiting for the money,” Fiordilino added. “I think shedding light on that is what put him at the finish line.”

The SBA has not commented on the number of delayed loans or the cause of the problems. For Cannapalooza, issues included SBA typos, lost documents, and slow response times to questions.

One example, according to Santiago, was the agency’s repeated request for the 4506-T form that allows the SBA to query the IRS on tax returns.

“They’ve asked me for the 4506-T form at least a half-dozen times,” Santiago said.

Having someone on the phone did happen every now and then, but with minimal impact.

“The people we have spoken to cannot help us or do not know what we are talking about,” Fiordilino said.

In an email earlier this year, the SBA apologized for “technical issues” but did not go into details.

The partners never suspected that the Cannapalooza harvest contributed to the delays because the hemp is legal under federal law. Unlike its cousin cannabis, hemp contains only traces of the psychoactive compound THC, so it doesn’t get the user high.

The 8 On Your Side investigation in February involved wiping out Florida disaster loans from a massive SBA spreadsheet of more than three million transactions worth $ 194 billion that have been distributed since the last spring across the country.

After removing Tampa-based transactions from the state’s list, a second review uncovered dozens of loans to farms that didn’t exist, on behalf of Tampa Bay area residents who didn’t. not applied.

A report from the Office of the Inspector General of the SBA expressed concern over $ 79 billion in loans from the first draw which ended last year.

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